Friday, January 29, 2016

Why Trump and Clinton Lead in the Polls

Related to my last blog (“The Sound, the Fury, and the Important”), just what is driving Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to in the polls? That I can answer in one word: Media. Each gets so much media attention that they have an advantage with voters.

Both Hillary and Trump were already celebrities, well known and with lots of media coverage. Trump had been famous for his so-called business success (though an examination shows that success to be overblown, since he inherited his business, then faced multiple bankruptcies). Hillary rode to fame on the coattails of her husband. Both enjoyed celebrity status long before they even announced their candidacies. The news media, which fawns over movie stars and other celebrities, naturally gave them more valuable publicity than it did to less famous people.

The other effect, the reason that extra media coverage is so important, is that it is human nature to trust the familiar more than we trust the unknown. The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know. That is a well documented fact, cognitive psychologists have long understood the phenomenon. It affects everything from race relations to food preferences – and it affects voting. Similarly with politicians. If we recognize a politician's name and face we can develop a trust in him, a trust lacking in his less well-known opponent.

That is the reason we see so many political ads that emphasize the name of the candidate but say nothing about his qualifications. Candidates know that many voters tend to support someone they recognize, even if they really know little about him. That is a dangerous tendency in any democratic government. The demagogues use it to manipulate voters.

What can we do about it? I know of no solution other than to understand the problem and make deliberate efforts to overcome it. As citizens, we must look beyond the surface of political campaigns. We must learn about each candidate's honesty, ability, commitment to our way of government etc. We must vote on the basis of those qualification and do our best to ignore name familiarity, physical appearance, etc. Only by so doing can we reject the demagogues and elect men and women who will serve us well.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Sound, the Fury, and the Important

The Sound, the Fury, and the Important

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: They lead the polls for their respective party presidential nominations, but what do most people really know about them? How many prospective voters can name even one of Hillary's accomplishments as Secretary of State? (Don't feel bad, she couldn't either.) How many could describe Trump's stance on such things as abortion, big government etc? (Don't feel bad, hardly anyone else can either – at least with any confidence of being right.) They lead in the polls, not because of reasoned voter decisions, but because they get so much publicity. And that publicity is essentially independent of the important issues.

What gets publicity? The celebrities, spectacular, the event that will draw people to pay attention to the news and thus to their advertisers. Meanwhile, the important but less spectacular passes unnoticed. For example, I have been involved in mountain rescue for nearly 30 years. During that time I have participated in several widely publicized searches, even been on TV and been quoted, in large type, on the front page of the state's largest daily newspaper. By searching in the woods and mountains I have helped save a few people, which is great. However, what is undoubtedly my most useful “rescue” activity goes completely unnoticed, and even I have no idea how many people I may have saved. That activity is participating in our rescue team's public education program, providing information on how to avoid trouble. That program attracts no media attention, the person who avoids trouble because of what we taught him does not make the news. Yet that program almost certainly saves more lives than we do tromping around the woods. Its effectiveness is completely unrelated to the publicity it receives.

Both Trump and Clinton remind me of Daniel J. Boorstin's quote that “a celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.” Both are very well known and attract a lot of attention, especially from the media. (One recent cartoon showed Trump as the pied piper, leading the news media. In my opinion a very appropriate image.) But what have they done for the country? What would they do for or to the country if elected? Few if any people can answer those questions.

Publicity, news attention etc. are nearly independent of importance. We pay a lot of attention to entertainers, sports figures and other celebrities, but little to people like scientists and engineers who advance our technology. We pay lots of attention to things like the hair style or speaking ability of political candidates, but much less to their records and how they are likely to govern.

This is dangerous to our country. Any representative government depends on voter knowledge and wisdom. Voters distracted by the irrelevant are more likely to fall for demagogues than to vote wisely; and that will lead to turmoil or tyranny, maybe both. And relevance is essentially independent of how much publicity something gets.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Scandal Saturation

What effect will a single scandal have on a politician? How about multiple scandals? Surprisingly, the single scandal seems much more likely to purge the powerful. Nixon, for example, fell victim to the Watergate break-in, even though he apparently participated only in the cover-up, not the original crime. That caused him to be the only president in history to resign from office. The scandal became so well-known that, today, a host of major and minor scandals having nothing to do with the Watergate office building get the suffix “gate” attached to their names.

On the other hand, look at the scandals in the life of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Insider trading, perjury, lying about the cause of the Benghazi attack, risking sensitive national security information on a private server, abuse of women, and on and on and on. Almost any one of the Clinton scandals is as shady as Watergate – yet most of the news and many voters ignore those scandals. Why?

I am no psychologist and have been unable to find anything on line to back this up, but my theory is that multiple scandals diffuse the response. People concentrate on a single scandal and the target of their anger cannot escape. However, the more scandals there are involving a particular politician, the more thinly spread is the reaction. That seems to me to be happening with the Clintons. Whether deliberately or just because of their lack of character, they have created a whole herd of scandals. Now, except for their enemies, people pay little attention to any of those scandals – and even their enemies are diffusing their attacks, some concentrating on the abuse issues, some on the email scandal etc.

I do not know the reasons why, but I suspect people are just so overloaded with scandal news that they are starting to ignore it. Of course that combines with the media obsession with making Hillary president. This bodes ill for the country. It means that we will reject someone who may be a basically good person with a single flaw while accepting the real scoundrel because we cannot keep track of all his nefarious characteristics.

I hope some psychologist can enlighten us on this matter. I hope even more that voters will wake up and pay attention to all pertinent information, even if they seem to face overload.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Who Decides? Who Pays? Who Benefits?

(Note: This is a direct quote from Chapter 15 of my book, "Freedom or Serfdom?)

The Parable of the Pie
Polly's Pie Parlor has an unusual business model. You pick the pie you want, but Polly delivers it to the customer who comes in half an hour later. You get the pie someone ordered half an hour ago; I hope you like his taste. And you won't pay for either of those, instead you pay for the pie somebody ordered two hours ago. No trading of pies is allowed.

That is obviously a silly example – or is it? It is an instance of what is called third-party decision making. One person decides, someone else pays and yet a third person lives with the decision. Yes that happens, maybe not in pie parlors, but it does happen in business, and especially in government.

Government and Third-Party Decisions
Government decisions are inevitably third-party decisions, made by someone far from the scene and who neither pays the cost nor lives with the results. It is worth looking at the problems this causes.

For any decision we must consider: (1) who decides, (2) who pays, (3) who lives with the results, and (4) who has the most knowledge of the situation. The best decisions are made by someone who pays the price, lives with the results, and is knowledgeable about the issues to be decided.

A person who pays but does not live with the consequences will have an incentive to keep costs down. However, he may not even care about quality or any results that do not affect him.

Someone who lives with the results but does not pay has an incentive to get a good solution, but not to control costs. He may go for an expensive solution that is only marginally better than something much cheaper.

A decision-maker who neither pays nor lives with the solution has no incentive to either control costs or find a good solution to the problem. Note that most government decision makers are in this category. They neither pay the price nor live with the result.

With government decisions, the decision-makers are usually insulated from both expense and results. However they do have an incentive to appear successful, so they tend to be reluctant to change their decisions. A change would be an admission that they were wrong, not usually career-enhancing. A bad decision is likely to remain in effect, much as the fees on climbers of Mt St Helens and Mt Adams remain in effect.

A person who pays and who lives with the decision, and who gets to make that decision, will have an incentive to balance cost and results. That incentive is likely to lead to the best overall decision, especially if that person is knowledgeable. Third parties are unlikely to have the first-hand knowledge possessed by the people directly involved. Those third parties may be 2,000 miles away from the situation. Furthermore, they may impose a “one size fits all” solution, ignoring differences between places as diverse as a big city like Los Angeles and a rural village where a traffic jam might mean three cars at a stop sign.

Third-party decision makers often think of themselves as smarter and more knowledgeable than the average person. They may even be correct, but the third party tends to have a different type of knowledge than the people at the scene. That third party is likely to have a theoretical background rather than the knowledge that comes from hands-on experience. Meanwhile, the people directly involved draw on personal experience and on information from others who have such experience. And those who pay and live with the results have an incentive to get more information if they need it.

For example, a rancher in eastern Oregon may have employees who drive 50 miles from town each day, then 50 miles back after work. Employees soon tire of the drive and of the expense of gas and automobile maintenance. The rancher has a hard time keeping good people, so he decides to provide housing right on his ranch. Not so fast! Representatives from urban/suburban areas dominate the state legislature. They do not make that daily commute, they do not lose employees who hate the drive, and many probably don't even know the difference between a bull and a steer. Guess who gets to decide how to run that ranch? That's right, the legislators from urban districts, people who want to prohibit such housing. Land use restrictions require that “Minimum lot sizes in farm and forest zones range from 80 to 240 acres.”[1] That restricts the number of houses a rancher may have for himself and his employees.

Ironically, many of the people who support those limits also want to reduce driving, yet their rules force ranch employees to commute from town. That is an example of not only third-party decision making but of stage one thinking. The decision makers do not think beyond the initial objective.

As government acquires more power, we find third-parties making more and more of our decisions. The results are predictable. Our only advantage is that we can blame someone else for the mistakes.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Sucker bait - $3 Billion Lost

In recent weeks, Americans have lost over three billion dollars of their personal money, with most of the losses suffered by the lowest economic classes, those who can least afford it – and it is state governments operating that scam. Furthermore, the news media is complicit, giving free publicity to the misleading big prizes, but failing to mention the losses.

I am talking about Powerball, though other lotteries are similarly misleading. Look at all the publicity about the mislabeled prize of supposedly a billion and a half dollars. And of course almost nobody looks at where that money came from: it came from losers, people who bought tickets and got nothing in return. In fact those people lost well over three billion dollars to support that alleged billion and a half dollar prize! Only half the money spent on tickets is returned in prizes. Some 40% goes to the states and another 10% to retailers selling the tickets. Since there are also prizes of lesser amounts, the money lost buying tickets has to amount to well north of three billion dollars. And since the lowest income people are the most likely to buy tickets, this amounts to a tax on the people least able to afford it. Then, on top of that, the prize is an advertising scam, payouts being well less than advertised.

In the first place, the big prizes are not cash of the amount advertised. Any winner wanting a cash payout will get only about 65% of the advertised price. To get it all, that winner must accept installments over 30 years, while the lottery collects interest on the money still unpaid. Then of course the tax man will take a big chunk of any payout, probably about half of it between state and federal taxes. That's right, the state that already gets 40% of the ticket prices then turns around and gets yet more in the form if income taxes on the winnings.

Of course, as in the case of this prize, there are often several tickets with the winning numbers, so they split whatever is left of the prize after taxes and the scam of the prize not being paid out immediately. The state is the big winner, while the holders of the winning tickets will probably end up with about 30 to 35% of the advertised prize. This is a sucker play.

Lotteries are, in fact, a variation on the idea of providing well-publicized benefits to a small number of people while ignoring the total cost spread among millions who pay the price. Chapter 13 of my book, Freedom or Serfdom?, discusses this in terms of spending tax money for projects that benefit few. The lottery does something similar, benefitting very few winners at the expense of millions of losers.

I am not naive enough to think that people are not going to gamble, but it is obscene that the state encourages an addictive activity that taxes the poor disproportionately. Nor am I convinced that lotteries are a net gain for the states sponsoring them. Gambling adicts create both social and financial problems. They often embezel to support their habit, and create family problems that damage children and put more people in jail and on welfare. The benefits of a lottery, if any, are miniscule compared to the cost citizens pay.

It is unlikely that we can, in the near future, reverse the trend of states encouraging gambling. We can, however, do our part by refusing to participate in this scam, and by trying to educate our families and friends about just how misleading lotteries are.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Due Process

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...” So says the 14th amendment to the U.S Constitution, expanding rights of the fifth amendment to all inhabitants of the country. That is an important protection for citizens, a protection sadly being eroded today. That amendment should protect against such things as being punished with no opportunity to defend oneself. Today, there are certain accusations regarded as proof in themselves, with the accused either allowed no opportunity to defend himself or allowed only a difficult and expensive defense, and that after the punishment is already in place.

Perhaps the most widespread such abuse is the no-fly list. Almost anybody can accuse someone of terrorist leanings, whereupon the accused is put on that list – usually without his knowledge. The accused learns of his de facto conviction and punishment only when he shows up at the airport. Even members of Congress have found themselves on that list, just because they have names similar to someone else put on the list. And it is easy to get on that list. Previous comments, suspicion (with no solid evidence) of terrorist leanings, your neighbor's revenge by reporting you, any of those and more could land you on that list. Then it is difficult to get off, even once you learn of your punishment. That deprives the accused of liberty without due process.

If the statists have their way, they will also use that list to deprive people of property, specifically any arms those people may have or want to purchase. They want to make anyone on that list automatically ineligible to own firearms, regardless of the reason they are on the list.

Nor is this abuse of power likely to stop there. Some in the Oregon legislature are proposing a law that would allow any family member, medical provider, or college professor to put a person's name on a secret list of people prohibited from buying guns. It would be very difficult to get off that list. The family nut case would have power to deny the whole family their constitutional rights. The professor who does not like comments in class could do the same to students – no due process allowed. The accused would only learn of their punishment when they try to buy a gun. Imagine, a wife tries to leave her abusive husband and he keeps stalking and maybe abusing her, but at the same time puts her name on that list. Fearing for her life, she gets a concealed weapon permit and goes to buy a pistol. Only then does she learn that she is on the list. He can assault, even kill her with no fear that she will be armed.

Nor is the no-fly list or attempts to circumvent second amendment rights the only problem. College campuses are becoming notorious for punishing accused sex abusers with no due process – and that at the behest of the federal government. While they cannot jail the accused, they can keep him off campus, deny him an education, on the word of an accuser – and he is not allowed the normal defense. A coed angry at a young man can effectively get him banned with nothing more than her accusation.

And what about discrimination? Racial discrimination is of course wrong, but that is another area where the accusation is considered a conviction. Want to do business with the government? Better be able to prove that you do not discriminate, the flimsiest of evidence will disqualify you.

Unless we fight this, we can expect the problem to expand. This is the perfect tool for the power-hungry. They will find more and more “special” cases for which they will allow no due process. Speak out against the powerful? They will do all they can to deprive you of your rights. If they can, they will put the burden on you to prove your innocence, rather than on the accuser to provide evidence of guilt.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Presidential Qualifications, Part 2

So what qualifications should we seek in a president or other office holder? What we need is similar to what I've previously described as qualifications for judges (See Chapter 10 of my book, Freedom or Serfdom):

Integrity: We must have integrity in any government official. Without integrity, other ability becomes a means to abuse the powers of office. An able but corrupt official will use that ability for his own benefit, not for the good of the country.
Commitment to Constitution and Law: Our elected officials (and the bureaucrats they hire) must be committed to our constitutional form of government, and to constitutional law. We have a representative republic with carefully crafted protections against abuse of power. We must insist that people we elect uphold those protections.
Subordination of Personal Belief to Law and Constitution: Our officials must be willing and able to follow the law and Constitution as written, not dictatorially impose their own ideas on us.
Intellectual Ability: They must have the ability cut through the intellectual fog, and decide on the basis of fact, logic, law and Constitution.
The inner strength to stand up for what is right: Officials are under pressure to go along with their supporters, and with the people who make the most noise. That pressure they must resist. They must decide on the basis of law and constitution and resist government by decibel.
Humility and willingness to listen to good advice: Nobody knows everything so our leaders must seek and utilize good advice. In fact, the Bay of Pigs attack, probably the greatest foreign policy debacle in our history happened partly because smart men in Kennedy's brain trust did not seek advice from people with knowledge they lacked. (Described in Irving Janis book, Groupthink.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Presidential Qualifications

Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried. (Winston Churchill)

Every four years in this country we elect a president – sadly, often on the basis of irrelevant characteristics. Charisma gets votes. So does good hair and the ability to act like one of the regular folk. A talent for believable deception can also help. Sometimes people vote for a candidate because of race or sex, claiming that it time for black or woman president. Then, once the president takes office, none of those characteristics does anything to help the economy, stop terrorists, control crime, or any of the other things we expect from a president. The same can be said of congressional representatives, governors, mayors, and other elected officials. Voters should decide on the basis of real qualification, not superficial things like charisma.

“Timothy Judge of the University of Florida business school says that being an extrovert is correlated with being chosen as a leader, but not with being a good leader. “We go for these effervescent leaders when what's really needed is a dull, focused, plodding [type] building effective groups and organizations.”1

Leadership requires two distinct but unrelated abilities. First and most important, the leader must make wise decisions. Second, he must motivate people to act on those decisions. Motivation without wisdom only leads people to Hell faster. It is the demagogue, the potential tyrant, who is most likely to motivate without wisdom.

“Charisma attracts votes. It also causes people to act without thinking. Extroverts are the people likely to win elections, but not the most likely to make good decisions. The only possible solution is for voters to pay more attention to substance and less to image.” (From my book, Freedom or Serfdom? Page 259)

Today, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump appear to be by far the leading aspirants for the presidential nomination of their respective parties. Both reached that position on the basis of irrelevancies. Hillary gains much support from those who believe we should have a woman president. Trump is a master of publicity. In my opinion, neither is qualified to be president. Once we look beyond the superficial, there is little there. Hillary, asked about her accomplishments as secretary of state, could not name even one. Trump, claiming to be a conservative, has proposed increases in government power by such things as government control of health care. I've not heard either of them praise limited, constitutional government.

Another problem with politicians is that they are usually convincing talkers. Yet when we look at their actions we often find those actions unrelated to promises.
I urge voters to look at not only the promises but the record of politicians. Avoid government by the silver tongue, by promises etc. People can lie with words much more easily than they can deceive with actions.

1 U.S. News and World Report, November 2009, p26